The Icepick Surgeon is not bedtime reading, unless you want really weird dreams. I enjoy popular science reading, especially when there’s some narrative, and this book is both those things. Basically it’s a review of mostly the past 275 years of medical history and the ugly things people have done and tried to justify in the name of science or helping people in the future. There’s a lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century piracy and grave robbing involved, a good bit of slavery and racial history, the occasional murder, and a whole lot of abuse of those without power, not limited to but including slaves, women, African Americans, those mentally or emotionally struggling, and the poor. One of the slightly more annoying features of the book is the habit of hiding interesting relevant side stories, like how the inventor of milk chocolate fits into the histories of slavery and natural sciences, in the footnotes, or the side note that Buffalo Bill briefly was attached to a dinosaur dig.
One of things I found interesting is the emphasis on the lesser known sides of some relatively common knowledge, like the rivalry between Edison and Tesla, or World War II spies and communists trying to get a hold of each other’s atomic secrets. Besides the questionable ethics of things like using prisoners or asylum inmates, or killing dogs, for scientific progress, the focus on the personal side of things, mostly scientists who just really want to be famous or have a legacy, gets hard to read after a while. It took me almost two weeks to finish this, and I needed a brain-cleanser read going at the same time.
Once you get to the 20th century, with cases like a botched gender-reassignment where people weren’t given critical information at important times, or the forensic scientist who faked a lot of science, the very recognizable and still in existence problems in some ways get to be squicky pretty fast. This whole book, but especially the last 2-3 chapters, really shows how awful people can get with a totally unironic straight face, and how ruined other people can get as a result. The psychological abuse in the name of science that may have helped make the Unabomber for example, as in almost sounding like a partial justification for what he would become (although in fairness the book does explicitly address that abuse is not an excuse, and that plenty of people who went through similar trauma don’t try to bomb and murder), and how Nazi scientist and other racist approaches to science lent themselves to atrocities of various kinds (including the Tuskegee syphilis experiments) actually do pay some attention to the justifications that the scientists used, which in the name of looking at the “in the name of science” part of the book makes sense, but it’s also really ugly (probably the point, but still not fun to read).